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Inside Olympic Sports

Dec. 24, 2001
Dec. 24, 2001

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Dec. 24, 2001

Catching Up With...

Inside Olympic Sports

A Real Downer
Another puzzling loss left Michelle Kwan struggling to right
herself for the Games

This is an article from the Dec. 24, 2001 issue Original Layout

One great skate. That's all four-time world champion Michelle
Kwan needed to silence her critics. One jaw-dropping,
knock-your-knickers-off performance to let the world know she was
back. And what better time and place to do it than last week's
International Skating Union Grand Prix final in Kitchener, Ont.,
the last international test before the Olympics? The Grand Prix
had an all-star field, including Russia's Irina Slutskaya, who
had beaten Kwan all three times they'd met this season and six of
seven times in the past two years.

All those nagging questions would have vanished if Kwan, 21,
could have rekindled the past. Questions about her decision in
October to fire her coach of 10 years, Frank Carroll, and her
failure to replace him. Questions about the wisdom of jilting
choreographer Lori Nichol, who'd worked with her since 1993 and
helped define her elegant style. Questions about Kwan's lifeless
performances this fall. One great skate, and the second-guessing
would have stopped.

It didn't happen. Not once in three tries in Kitchener did Kwan
beat Slutskaya or bring the crowd to its feet. Kwan spun out of
her combination jump during Friday afternoon's short program,
finishing third. Then she fell on a triple loop during Friday
night's free-skating program. Finally, on Saturday night, during
the second free skate (an oddity of this competition), Kwan fell
on her final triple toe loop. She never showed spark and wound up
second, behind Slutskaya. Asked on Friday if she was pacing
herself during the long Olympic run-up, Kwan smiled ruefully: "It
looks as if I'm pacing myself, but I'm trying to build some
momentum."

It wasn't as if Slutskaya, 22, who's the clear Olympic favorite,
skated like a house afire. After a fine short program she lost
much of her fizz in the free skates, landing only four clean
triple jumps (of six planned) in each and making several errors.
Her speed, however, was better than Kwan's, her spins more
difficult, and her obvious pleasure while skating a plus. Kwan
used to be guaranteed the higher presentation marks, but
Slutskaya outscored her in Kitchener. That bodes badly for Kwan
in Salt Lake City.

As for Sarah Hughes, the 16-year-old from Great Neck, N.Y., who
put herself in the spotlight by beating Slutskaya and Kwan this
fall at Skate Canada, she clearly performs better coming out of
the shadows. Considered an upset threat, Hughes fell in her short
program and made several mistakes in Friday's free skate to stand
fourth going into the final. With no chance to win, she skated
superbly on Saturday--three of the seven judges placed her ahead
of Slutskaya--and finished third overall, the same placement she
had a year ago in this event.

Kwan, too, finished behind Slutskaya at last year's Grand Prix
final and then won the world championships. So it would be a
mistake to count her out. "Michelle has a pattern of peaking at
the right time," says Nichol.

Interestingly, the 1998 short program that Nichol created for
Kwan to music by Rachmaninoff was pulled out of mothballs by Kwan
last week after she watched old tapes. Kwan also intends to skate
to it in Salt Lake City, as she did at the Games in
Nagano--another decision that left people scratching their heads.
It's as if she believes she can go back to the future, to when
she had spring to her stride every time she took the ice. Kwan
has become her own Kwannabe. "Sometimes you have to go down
before you can go up again," Nichol says.

The down part Kwan has mastered. Up again needs work.

Bode Miller's Sizzling Season
Skiing All-Out But Not All the Time

Conventional wisdom has it that Bode Miller, the U.S. Ski Team's
former wild child, has become the hottest ski racer in the world
by putting aside his crash-prone style in favor of more
conservative tactics. Don't believe it. This guy was raised in a
house without indoor plumbing and electricity on the northern
edge of New Hampshire's White Mountains. He earned his racing
chops not only on skis but also on skateboards, and he is beating
the best skiers in the world while racing with a ligament in his
left knee that was torn last February and never reconstructed.
Conventional wisdom doesn't apply to Miller.

"I haven't changed at all; I'm skiing the same way I always
have," Miller, 24, said last week after winning a World Cup giant
slalom on Dec. 9 in Val d'Isere, France, and a slalom the next
day in Madonna di Campiglio, Italy, the first slalom and first
back-to-back Cup victories by a U.S. male skier since 1983.
Exhibit A in support of Miller's contention that he hasn't
changed his approach: He fell all the way to his hip about 20
yards into his winning run at Val d'Isere. "Totally hip-checked
the first gate," he says. "Not exactly conservative." Indeed,
last Sunday, Miller fell early in his second run in a giant
slalom in Alta Badia, Italy.

Other factors have helped Miller--a 1998 Olympian who hit the
national stage at 18 with a precocious third place in slalom at
the U.S. nationals--emerge as an Olympic favorite in at least two
events.

Maturity: He still skis a direct, aggressive Herminatoresque
line, but according to U.S. technical coach Jesse Hunt, "Bode has
been skiing better tactically, going straight when he has to and
not so straight when he doesn't have to. He's always been fast,
but now he's tactically more sound."

Equipment: Like many slalom and GS specialists on the World Cup
circuit, Miller is using short, more maneuverable skis, only 161
centimeters long. His ski company, Fischer, also tweaked the
design, moving the narrow waist of the hourglass-shaped slalom
ski closer to the tail. "They created a shorter turning radius,
and it's been awesome because I get earlier pressure on my edges
than most guys," says Miller.

Confidence: "Before the season, I skied fast every day with the
Austrians," he says. "Now I'm skiing faster than anybody else."

Miller isn't one to doubt himself. Even in his early teens,
splitting his time among skiing, snowboarding and radical
skateboarding, he never lost sight of his priorities. "I always
wanted to ski race," he says. "I always wanted to go to the
Olympics, and I always wanted to be the best ski racer the United
States has ever had."

--Tim Layden

COLOR PHOTO: BILL FRAKES Needing to shine in the Grand Prix final, Kwan was uninspired.

Dispatches

AS THE SLED SWERVES After earning two world titles--and $500,000
in endorsements--with brakeman Jen Davidson, struggling driver
Jean Racine (no wins in eight races this season) dumped Davidson
less than two months before women's bobsled makes its Olympic
debut. Last week Racine coaxed converted heptathlete Gea Johnson
into being her new brakeman; Johnson's former driver Bonny Warner
is considering Davidson as her new brakeman, along with Bethany
Hart; and driver Jill Bakken dumped Shauna Rohbock in favor of
brakeman Vonetta Flowers, who had ridden with Warner until early
this season. Two pairs will qualify for the Games at the U.S.
trials in Park City, Utah, later this month....

AFGHAN ATHLETES UNVEILED? The IOC says it will soon send an
envoy to Afghanistan in hopes of welcoming the war-ravaged
country back into the Olympic community in time for the 2004
Athens Games. The IOC suspended the country in 1999 in part
because the ruling Taliban forbade women to participate in
sports....

THE MAILMAN'S ROUTE Utah Jazz star Karl Malone says he wants to
carry the Olympic torch, but only "if it's the right situation.
I don't really have the desire of running it across the desert
somewhere for a 10th of a mile. Running it into the Olympic
stadium, now that means something." As a Utah resident and
two-time Olympic gold medalist, Malone deserves to tote the
torch somewhere along the route, but the honor of carrying it
into the stadium should go to an athlete known for delivering on
ice or snow--not on the hardwood.

--Brian Cazeneuve